Is Touch Beyond Infancy Important for Children’s Mental Health?

Whiddon, M. A., & Montgomery, M. J. (2011). Is touch beyond infancy important for children’s mental health? Retrieved from /vistas11/Article_88.pdf

Numerous studies from various fields have established that touch is vital to healthy adjustment during infancy and also during old age.

Physiological research emphasizes the importance of touch to physical and psychological systems (Field, 2003). Attachment research emphasizes the importance of touch in the sensitive responsiveness and availability characteristic of the secure attachment style (Kassow & Dunst, 2004). Behavioral research emphasize the importance of contingent touch in reinforcement of infant behavior (Gewirtz & Pelaez- Nogueras, 2000).

Recently, attention has been given to research examining touch in medical situations for elderly populations. Theoretically, touch should remain important throughout the lifespan, but most touch research has focused on infants or elders (Field, 2003).

It stands to reason that sensitive, contingent physical touch between parent and child would be associated with positive adjustment beyond infancy, such as in middle childhood. However, this relation has been seldom investigated.

This article describes a study we conducted to add to current knowledge by focusing on middle childhood, investigating the links between parents’ touch of their children during interaction and their children’s psychological adjustment.

It is our hope that our findings, which highlight the importance that parental touch has for children’s well-being, will be beneficial for parents and professionals alike.

Importance of Touch During Infancy

We have all heard stories about the terrible outcomes experienced by children deprived of physical touch (e.g., Pines, 1997).

Yet, many parents today brush off the importance of touch as relatively insignificant beyond infancy, despite the fact that research suggests that humans are “hardwired” to crave touch and actually require it for normal physical, social, and emotional development to occur (Field, 2001, 2003).

Many systems in the brain are activated by touch, without which optimal physiological development is not possible (Field, 2001, 2003, 2007). Moreover, positive, nurturing touch triggers the release of the “bonding hormone,” Oxytocin, which increases feelings of closeness and facilitates parent-child attachment and social-emotional adjustment (Field, 2003, 2007).

Thus, touch serves an important role for the developing infant. While sensitive, contingent touch is vital to positive adjustment, non-contingent touch given in an insensitive manner can be detrimental to adjustment. When parents touch their infant in a manner that is experienced by the baby as intrusive, overstimulating or insensitive to his or her needs and wants, the infant is more likely to suffer from poor adjustment (Field, 2003, 2007; Shaw, Owens, Vondra, Keenan, & Winslow, 1996).

In fact, research suggests that young children who do not receive enough positive physical touch from their parents during early development seek out physical contact through aggression during childhood and later in life (Field, 2001). Providing children with the nurturing touch they need may decrease the amount of aggression expressed.

Is Touch Important Beyond Infancy?

Chariss Tatman